Fears of flu outbreak prompts vaccine call from HSE
Doubling of cases in Australia, NZ leads to concerns of heavy winter flu season in Ireland
The HSE is calling on vulnerable groups to get the flu vaccine, though there is uncertainty about how effective this year’s formulation will be. File photograph: Getty Images
The Health Service Executive has warned staff to prepare for the possibility of a heavy flu season, following reports of a surge in cases in Australia and New Zealand during the southern hemisphere winter.
The HSE is calling on vulnerable groups to get the flu vaccine, though there is uncertainty about how effective this year’s formulation will be.
In the UK, the National Health Service has warned it will come under pressure during the winter due to an expected rise in serious influenza cases.
“The signs from Australia and New Zealand - who are just coming out of their winter - are that it has been a heavy flu season, and many of the hospitals down there have struggled to cope,” according to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens.
“The signs from the southern hemisphere winter have been that flu has been much higher and it has been the variety that puts the most pressure on the old people’s services like care homes,” he said.
Australia has reported 98,000 confirmed cases of the flu this season - more than double the rate recorded last year. Hospitalisations have also doubled.
The most virulent strain in Australia this winter - h3n2 - is the same strain that was prevalent in Ireland last winter, according to HSE assistant national director of public health Dr Kevin Kelleher. This strain particularly affects the old, leading to higher hospital admissions.
Dr Kelleher speculated that the flu in Australia may have gotten there from Europe, and therefore may not return to Ireland this winter. “It’s a classic chicken and egg situation,” he told RTÉ Radio.
It is not possible at this stage to say what the dominant flu strain in Ireland will be this winter and what coverage the flu vaccine will provide, according to Dr Kelleher. “We won’t know until we have the first number of cases here whether the vaccine will cover them.”
The proportion of hospital staff getting the flu vaccine has risen from 21 per cent to 32 per cent, but the HSE still had a long way to go to improve uptake by staff, he said.